Bulls in 6th place in East after overtime win, and, yes, coaching matters

The Bulls were a complete mess from top to bottom at this time a year ago. After Wednesday’s win, coach Billy Donovan has them sitting in a playoff spot for the first time in years, and, more important, the players have a coach they’re willing to fight for.

SHARE Bulls in 6th place in East after overtime win, and, yes, coaching matters
“Billy’s been great, man,’’ Zach LaVine said of coach Billy Donovan. “Total 180 from what we had last year, cause we pretty much have the same team.”

“Billy’s been great, man,’’ Zach LaVine said of coach Billy Donovan. “Total 180 from what we had last year, cause we pretty much have the same team.”

Nan Y. Huh/AP

At this time last season, the Bulls were about to drop to 19 games under .500, had long tuned out former coach Jim Boylen, and had the likes of Denzel Valentine and Thad Young still in a bit of shock that they hadn’t been moved at the trade deadline.

On top of all that, the Sun-Times had reported that a major front-office change was coming, adding to the organization’s status as a traveling circus.

One year later, a “total 180’’ as Zach LaVine called it, sounded like a complete understatement.

In beating Minnesota in overtime 133-126 on Wednesday at the United Center, the Bulls not only moved to just a game under .500 at 15-16, but jumped up to the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference standings.

And, oh, by the way, that was a day after LaVine was named a first-time All-Star.

So what’s changed for a roster that was mostly returning?

Yet another reminder for chairman Jerry Reinsdorf — head coaches do matter.

“Billy’s been great, man,’’ LaVine said of Billy Donovan. “Total 180 from what we had last year, cause we pretty much have the same team. We’ve had our share of ups and downs, games we should have won and didn’t come out and play the right way, but our approach and my approach is just so much different mentally. I’ve been saying this the whole time, [Donovan] challenges you, and he’s so respected and goes about it the right way.

“Everything comes from winning and it’s team-oriented, and [if] you do that you’re going to have individual success, especially for talented players. You have to have some ownership in that, and obviously we were all bought in from the beginning, and I think that was the main thing. We were ready to fight for this guy.’’

And there it was. The players in this locker room are ready to fight for Donovan. Under Boylen, they were just ready to fight.

So in close games, like the one against Minnesota (7-26) turned into, there seems to be a learned extra gear to make sure everyone is pulling on the rope.

Sure, there are still the stumbles like Coby White fouling Ricky Rubio beyond the three-point line with 4.9 seconds left in regulation, allowing the vet to sell it as a shot attempt rather than a foul on the floor. Rubio, of course, sank all three to tie the game.

Loosening up on the grip wasn’t going to happen in the extra stanza if LaVine could help it, however. His three-pointer with 3:27 left in overtime capped a decisive 7-0 run.

Mr. All-Star finished the night with 35 points, but he did have seven turnovers.

As for Donovan’s role in LaVine and the team’s relevancy, the coach has gone out of his way to stay out of any talk about what happened last season.

“I think the only way it works with a team and a coaching staff is what I would say, there’s got to be like voluntary cooperation,’’ Donovan said. “I heard that from Jeff Van Gundy. I think Pat Riley made that comment when he was coaching with him, and Jeff shared it with me. It’s a great line. I think these guys have really voluntarily cooperated. We’ve all worked really, really close together. I think I said this — outside of watching film on individual players, I have not delved into anything about last year with any of those guys.

“Last year is over and done with. There’s really nothing for me really to know. I also feel too, is I really wanted everybody to start off with a clean slate, that I didn’t really care what happened last year.’’

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